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Upbeat Bentsen Calls Reagan Remark Ultimate Tribute

Times Staff Writer

After months of campaigning in relative obscurity, Lloyd Bentsen clearly is enjoying the sudden glamour and glory that followed his success in Wednesday’s vice presidential debate.

And after two days of campaigning to cheering crowds in Texas, the Democratic nominee was reluctant to let the spotlight fade again. At a press conference Saturday in Houston, an upbeat Bentsen contended that President Reagan’s criticism of his debate performance was the ultimate tribute.

“I think the best review I received from the debate came from the Oval Office itself,” the Texas senator said. “When they brought out the Great Communicator for damage control, it was the best measure of success I could imagine.”

Calls It a ‘Cheap Shot’

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Reagan had told reporters that Bentsen’s reproach to Republican vice presidential nominee Dan Quayle in the debate, “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy,” was a “cheap shot.”

Democratic strategists hope Bentsen’s quip will be seen as a defining moment that will boost their underdog campaign. Bentsen said that Democrats will focus on public unease about Quayle’s qualifications “more and more” until the Nov. 8 election, and he insisted that “momentum is moving our way.”

Bentsen has become energized, almost jaunty, by the favorable debate reviews. At his press conference Saturday, and later at a Navajo Indian festival here, he aimed at the fact that Vice President George Bush has not met Quayle--and until Saturday, barely mentioned him--since the debate.

“George Bush may try to run away from his running mate, but he really can’t hide,” Bentsen said in Houston. He said the best measure of his success “is the fact that the Republicans have now tried to change the subject” away from the debate and Quayle.

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‘Where Is Dan Quayle?’

“In fact,” Bentsen added, “I’m beginning to wonder: Where is Dan Quayle? Did he leave a forwarding address when he left Omaha?”

Democratic Party Chairman Paul G. Kirk Jr., who traveled with Bentsen last week, called him “the star of the week,” and said the debate marked “a very significant week” for the Democrats’ campaign.

“Happily, this week Dan Quayle tried to cloak himself in a false mantle, to put on a mask that didn’t fit,” Kirk said. “And Sen. Bentsen was wise enough to counsel Sen. Quayle not to pick up that mask.”

Partisan crowds Friday seemed to share that view. In San Antonio, Bentsen took a picturesque, made-for-TV boat cruise down the winding San Antonio River to a small amphitheater. More than 700 people crowded the banks with dozens of anti-Quayle stickers saying “He’s No J.F.K.” and “He’s Tan, but Can He Type?” Despite the public setting, no Bush-Quayle signs or supporters were in evidence.

Bentsen called the debate a “turning point” in the race, and he cited a Mason/Dixon poll in Texas that showed the Democratic ticket was within 5 points of the Republicans. Other Texas polls have shown the Democrats down as much as 12 points.

Sees Dead Heat

“These numbers reveal a statistical dead heat despite the Republicans’ best dirty tricks and cheap shots,” said Tom Cosgrove, who heads Michael S. Dukakis’ presidential campaign in Texas.

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With 29 electoral votes in Texas, Bentsen already campaigned more than 25 days in what has become a key state in the election. Texas Democrats also are sending out 1 million flyers targeted at swing voters, many of whom supported Reagan in 1980 and 1984.

Hoping to counter a series of negative Bush ads, the state party also has begun airing a radio ad in which Hays County Sheriff Alfard Hohman says that “the truth is Michael Dukakis is tough on crime.”

Joe O’Neill, Bentsen’s chief of staff, said the Republican attacks on such issues as gun control, the death penalty and Massachusetts’ former prison furlough program had hurt.

“This is a very conservative state,” he said. “The negatives stuck to Dukakis.”

Bentsen also fought back on gun control and crime Saturday. “Instead of worrying about officers who might be gunned down by cop-killing bullets,” he told reporters, Bush has “distorted” Dukakis’ record.

Refers to Arms Sales

“Texas won’t buy a bill of goods on gun control from a man who wanted to sell HAWK missiles to the ayatollah,” he said.

Bentsen repeated his claim that he chided Quayle about Kennedy because he was angered by the Indiana senator’s citing the Democratic leader. “I thought it was a most inept, inaccurate comparison,” he said. “And, frankly, I resented it.”

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Bentsen said he had met Kennedy when they both served in the House of Representatives. In 1948, he said, he even cribbed from Kennedy’s congressional campaign literature.

“I was invited to his wedding,” Bentsen added with a chuckle. “If I had known he was going to be President, I’d have gone too.”


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